Don J. Usner/Knopf
Longtime friend Abbott “Kit” Combes, a former editor at the New York Times Magazine, bequeathed me his collection of journalism, memoirs, biographies and autobiographies: Harrison Salisbury, James Reston, Katharine Graham, among many. Political journalist Jack W. Germond penned perhaps the most colorful title, “Fat Man in a Window Seat,” an on-the-road recounting of politics in backcountry.
Whether a big newspaper superstar or a small-town journalist, reporting is reporting, with the same toolkit at the Washington Post or the Cannon Beach Gazette. Only the megaphone is different — and even that is changing with the widening reach of regional papers online.
I thought of Combes — who died in 2012 — after reading Seymour M. Hersh’s “Reporter,” a new book from Knopf.
Hersh had what the great early 20th-century editor William Allen White called “the vitriolic pen,” not to be wielded lightly.
Publishers loved and hated Hersh’s high-stakes, high-profile exposés that demanded rigorous fact-checking and occasionally legal counsel. Readers found his revelations tantalizing but unsettling.
But he managed his decades-long career as a great voice for independent, effective journalism, defying party labels and equally respected on both sides of the aisle. He was the first U.S. journalist inside Hanoi during the Vietnam war.
Hersh blew the lid off President Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia and shocked readers with revelations of CIA assassination attempts throughout the world.
He detailed a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation against the antiwar movement, leading to the formation of the Church Committee in 1976 to examine abuses by intelligence agencies.
Hersh traced the CIA’s supply of chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s 1980s war against Iran and debunked official versions of Iraq’s chemical weapons arsenal in 2002.
As a teenager in Chicago’s south suburbs, Hersh was about to enter his father’s dry cleaning business when a community college professor recognized his writing talents and paved the way to his entry to the University of Chicago.
“I could always write — say exactly what I wanted to say in one take — and that ability got me through college with better grades than I deserved,” Hersh recalls in “Reporter.”
That skill would serve him well in the world of journalism.
He worked for Chicago’s City News Service, tutored by cynical editors and reporters wise to “the Chicago way,” a beat where the cops were on the take and the mob ran the city.
The City News reporters, with rare exception, ignored the corruption and in return were given access to crime scenes and allowed to park anywhere they wished as long as they displayed a press card on the dashboard, according to Hersh.
The young reporter “was smitten” with his profession.
Hersh learned journalistic rules that would be rules that we should all live by: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out. The guys on the streets who did not get their facts straight or were consistently being out-reported did not last long.”
The best way to tell a story, no matter how significant or complicated, “was to get the hell out of the way and write it,” said the man who broke details of Lt. William Calley Jr.’s shooting of 109 Vietnamese civilians in 1969. Twenty-six American soldiers were charged with criminal offenses in the aftermath, but only Calley Jr., a platoon leader, was convicted.
The story “made a lot of people irrational,” Hersh reflects. It was to be among his first to shine a light on the government’s costly military secret operations, a path from Vietnam to Cambodia, Panama and the Middle East.
His early experience as a reporter in Chicago “kept me from falling into a funk when my work was being savaged, as it occasionally was,” he writes. “I would survive any criticism of a story I knew to be true.”
‘Doing his thing’
Hersh repeatedly turned down offers to take an editorial desk job or to settle in at one place for too long. But he was to maintain the respect of his peers and the grudging admiration of government officials and journalistic peers.
Again and again, it was Hersh’s stories — and his publishers’ willingness to run them — that deserve praise in a world too eager to break for the next commercial or to kowtow to whoever holds office.
Hersh’s advice to reporters is fundamental, and serves well newsrooms large and small:
“I learned early in my career that the way to get someone to open up was to know what I was talking about and ask questions that showed it.”
Note to Kit Combes: I’m adding this to the bookshelf.
R.J. Marx is The Daily Astorian’s South County reporter and editor of the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette.